Ricky Sanchez stood nervously behind his two friends, fellow initiates in the Skulls gang. He was still trying to figure out what in the world he thought he was doing when his buddy slapped him on the shoulder.

“There,” Derek, the biggest of the three, said with a wicked grin, pointing at a woman in a business suit on the sidewalk across the street. She was still half a block away, but heading their direction.

Ricky looked around again. Just three blocks off, a guy was flying. Two blocks the other way, a pair in blue and red tights was locked in a brawl with other Skulls, though he couldn’t recognize any of them from here.

He started to speak up. For a fleeting moment of clarity he didn’t care about moving up in the Skull ranks anymore. He had to tell them how insane this was, but just as he opened his mouth, his friends bolted for the hapless woman.

Ricky mentally kicked himself. He came this far. He couldn’t bail now.

Suddenly a gust of wind nearly knocked him off his feet and a green blur crossed right in front of him.

“Man, for just a second there I thought you grew a brain.”

Ricky finally started to register what he was seeing, his expression shifting between anger, confusion, fear, and humiliation.

Standing in front of him was a man in bright green spandex with long gloves and sturdy boots of the same shade. Silver detailing outlined his wiry frame along the arms and legs, matching the lightning emblem on his chest. He wore wide framed silver goggles, though they did little to hide his identity given his chiseled facial features and a profile capped by a neatly trimmed goatee.

“Javi!?” Ricky screamed. “What are you doin to me? Get out of here, man”

“Hey,” the other man interrupted sternly with a finger raised in Ricky’s face. “It’s Emerald Ghost when I’m working.”

“Why you gotta embarrass me in front of my posse, Javi?”

Emerald Ghost busted out laughing. “Listen to you. What’s all this?” he said, waving his hand so rapidly in Ricky’s face it started to make him dizzy. “This face paint. What would Aunt Lily say if she saw you like this.”

“Man, why you gotta bring Aunt Lily into this?” Ricky threw his arms down and bit back the urge to stomp his feet.

“You know I promised her I’d take care of you. It’s the only way she’d let me do this.” He indicated his costume with a rapid wave of his hands to punctuate the statement.

“I don’t need your help. The Skulls got my back. I’m doin’ this for her, homes.”

Before he could blink, Ricky found himself in a headlock. “Oh you’re doin’ this for her, huh, nimrod? That’s really what she wants is to visit you in jail.” Ricky then found himself looking south.

“You see that?” Emerald Ghost said, nodding to a cluster of thugs trying to boost a car in the distance. “Your friends think that pullin’ a crime on this side of the tunnel right under Supers’ noses proves their big time? Guess what, cuz…” He forced Ricky to watch as a gold-clad superhero pinned down the entire group with a wave of his hand.

Ricky groaned as he was turned around to face north. “Your home boys keep sending new recruits in here, n’ it’s the same song and dance every time.” That brawl he spotted earlier had ended by now. The red and blue pair stood over the beaten Skulls, who were disappearing in a telltale crackling white aura.

“They the stupid ones. We won’t get caught. Let go,” Ricky whined, trying to squirm free.

Javi let him go. “The ones who come back only get away out of blind dumb luck, cuz. It’s a numbers game. You roll the dice and you’re in the right place at the right time or…” he slowly turned his head toward the park. Ricky’s eyes followed, landing on his two buddies. Derek laughed triumphantly as he yanked the woman’s purse out of her grip, only to find himself suddenly encased in ice from a bolt from above.

Emerald Ghost turned around again, bringing himself within inches of Ricky’s face. “And do you really think they all just go to jail, little cousin? You seen some of the hardware those locos carry?”

Ricky’s shoulders slumped. Suddenly he found himself averting his eyes.

“Go home. And wash off your face, vato. If they give you any hassle, you call me.”

As Ricky disappeared around a corner, Emerald Ghost turned at a curious sound. A fire was roaring mid air, getting closer. He grinned as the source of the sound descended to the street and approached him.

“Come on baby, light my fire. How can I help you, mamacita?” Oblivious to the subtle shift in the color of her eyes, he caught a glimpse of black behind her, springing off a rooftop toward them.

Suddenly the goggles on Javi’s face lifted up as his eyes widened in shock.

“Hello, Ghost,” Nightstrike said as he landed.

“Uh oh,” Emerald Ghost replied with a worried tone. His gaze shifted back to Effigy. “The world is ending isn’t it.”

***

Deep under Perez Park, crystalline rock walls once again resonated with latent energy, amplifying it until the air itself pulsed with magic. Yet no ritual was being performed this day. The only chanting heard was the ever-present distant background chorus of protection and seeker spells from the lower levels of the cavern.

Seven robed figures formed a circle in a chamber at the center of all that raw power, their mere presence electrifying the air. It was the first time a single coven of the Circle of Thorns had seen a gathering of this magnitude since before the arrival of the Ritki.

Four men, two women, and one slender being of indeterminate gender -and possibly species- stood facing one another, occasionally glancing at the vacant opening at the top of the circle farthest from the entrance. Individually they represented each discipline practiced and taught in their mystic society. Collectively they formed the Inner Circle.

Outside the chamber, a dozen apprentices and acolytes stood in awkward silence. The heated meeting had been going on for over an hour.

“The viziers have confirmed,” a gaunt man with hollow, black eyes interjected. “The next planetary alignment suitable for an opening of the Book of Y’mathri’h will not be for 113 years!”

“I can wait,” a raspy voice emanated from deep within the shadow of a holocaust cloak. All six of the others snapped glares in the same direction.

“So speaks the lich,” one of the two women in the gathering dared to say. “Not all of us have the benefit of that kind of time.” Her voice seemed to echo in the minds of the others more than be heard aloud.

“And even if we did,” a powerfully built man in bright robes boomed. “How can we sit idly by while power that is rightfully ours–“

“WAS rightfully ours,” the second woman interrupted, glaring at the man directly across from her in the circle. “If not for the bumbled execution of a plan so painstakingly laid out over the course of a century!”

“Perhaps if the acquisition of the sacred tome was not handled so recklessly, we wouldn’t have needed to rush the ritual preparation.”

At that, an abrupt silence fell over the circle. All eyes narrowed and sneers grew. The High Mage immediately to the right of the empty spot in the circle raised his head. At the signal, anyone who appeared to want to speak halted.

“You should be the last to point fingers, Markham.” The man’s robes were the most ornate of the gathering, with runes that moved of their own volition across the fabric.

“The one thing on which the Circle is in agreement,” he said with a calmness that was more unsettling than the High Death Mage’s presence. “Is that the heaviest burden of fault, if not all, rests on you.”

“Indeed,” the High Force Mage added. “If a scapegoat is what we sought, we needn’t look far. We came here to discuss salvaging this disaster, not casting blame. The Circle must be united.”

“And it will!” The disembodied voice was joined by swirling green mist in the open gap at the top of the circle. In seconds the energy and smoke coalesced, taking the shape of a man. “The time for debate is over,” the voice continued even as his body solidified. Soon the Ruin Mage stood at his proper place in the circle.

“There is a way to summon The Nameless. The Grand Mage has given us the means… through G’rok.”

A collective rumble spread through the Inner Circle. Expressions of doubt and confusion accompanied a burst of questions from everyone. All except Markham, who began to smile.

“Brilliant.”

The wizened Ruin Mage made deliberate eye contact with Markham. “And that is why the Grand Mage let you live. He would have a word with you.”

***

“So let me see if I get this straight.” Emerald Ghost shifted his gaze between Nightstrike and Effigy with more than a hint of cynicism. “You’re looking for people to help stop this big bad Thorn plot you uncovered. And I’m the first guy you come to.”

Effigy raised an eyebrow. “Nightstrike said you’ve worked together before.”

Ghost smirked. “Oh he did, huh? Yeah you could say that.” He looked a Nightstrike as if sizing him up. “I used to run with this loco. Back in the day it was just Ghost, though. Dressed up all in gray. I’d take ’em down so fast they thought they saw a ghost, right ese?”

Javi chuckled. There was the slightest hint of a smile behind Nightstrike’s mask. “He found me when I was a kid on the street. When I first found out about my powers. Young, dumb, and full o…” He shot a glance at Effigy. “You know the saying.”

Effigy just stood quietly, more confused by the exchange between the two men than by the off-color phrase.

Nightstrike nodded. “The way you handled that kid back there… That’s exactly the kind of quality we’re looking for. The Circle is an unorthodox enemy. We need people who think outside the box.”

“You really want me on this, homes?”

Effigy shifted, starting to wonder in the silence if this was such a good idea after all.

At length Emerald Ghost and Nightstrike shook hands.

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